Is Portugal’s Algarve Really the California of Europe?

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Written by: | Last updated on February 29, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 9 minutes
This article is available in: en_US

Many newspapers refer to Portugal’s Algarve region (and sometimes the whole of Portugal) as the California of Europe. There are definitely similarities between the two locations, particularly with regards to the beaches and weather, but there are also a considerable number of differences as well. 

There are some similarities and differences between the two regions but, generally speaking, ‘California of Europe’ is more of a marketing slogan than anything else (don’t forget to also visit Aveiro, the Venice of Portugal).

This isn’t surprising as we’re comparing two very different regions in terms of size. California is the third largest state by land area, comprising approximately 164,000 square miles (424,000 square kilometers). The Algarve is approximately 1,930 square miles (5,000 square kilometers). 

There are also big differences in terms of population. California has a population of around 39 million compared to the Algarve’s 450,000 or so people. Basically, California’s population is 87 times larger than that of the Algarve. 

However, the lack of similarities isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As somewhere that’s cheaper, safer, and has a much more laid-back lifestyle, the Algarve doesn’t really need to compare itself to anywhere else to encourage people to move here. 

Beaches

© Portugalist – Santa Monica Beach, CA

The beaches are one major similarity between the Algarve and California. California’s coastline stretches for over 800 miles along the Pacific Ocean, featuring a wide variety of beaches. From the iconic sandy shores of Santa Monica and Malibu in Southern California to the rugged beauty of Big Sur’s coastline in the central part of the state, California’s beaches cater to a range of preferences. Surfers flock to spots like Huntington Beach, while the serene shores of Carmel-by-the-Sea offer tranquility. 

© Portugalist – Praia da Martinhal

Similarly, the Algarve is home to more than 100 beaches dotted from one side of the coast to the other. Depending on the part of the Algarve you’re in–the Eastern, Central, or Western Algarve–each beach will have a different feel. Some, like those near Sagres, are more rugged and cater more to surfers while those in the Eastern Algarve are calmer and flatter. Those in the Central Algarve typically have the brown or reddish cliffs behind them, making them incredibly picturesque. 

praia de benagil
© Portugalist – Praia da Benagil

Both California and the Algarve offer stunning coastal beauty, but their individual landscapes and vibes cater to diverse beachgoer preferences.

Weather

The weather is another similarity, particularly Southern California and the Algarve. The Algarve gets around 300 days of sunshine per year, and most of the winter months are mild. San Diego, surprisingly, has just 146 days of sunshine on average. A closer comparison to the Algarve would be Denver, which also gets 300 days of sunshine per year

Cost of Living

The Algarve is considerably cheaper than California. Although property and grocery prices have both increased, you can still buy an apartment in Faro for €150,000. A monthly grocery shop might cost €250 per month. A coffee can cost as little as €0.50 for an espresso or around €1-2 for a larger coffee. A beer can cost as little as €1-2 while lunch can cost €10-15, sometimes with 2-3 courses for that price. 

There also isn’t the same difference in grocery prices between somewhere like the Algarve and the middle of the country like there is between California and some of the more affordable inner states. 

Some things are more expensive in Portugal, like fuel, but the lower cost of things like groceries makes Portugal more affordable overall.  

Food

© Portugalist – California Burrito

The food in Portugal and the US is very different, and the biggest difference between Portugal and the US: the lack of Mexican food. Of course, this isn’t surprising given that Portugal doesn’t border Mexico. Californian food also has more of a focus on healthy and fresh and even though there are plenty of restaurants like this popping up, fruits and vegetables are much less a feature of traditional Portuguese food. 

© Portugalist - Cataplana, a traditional Algarve dish

However, there are big similarities between what can be grown in both regions. Almonds, avocados, grapes, figs, pomegranates, oranges, and olives are all ingredients that are grown in both California and the Algarve. 

© Portugalist – Orange groves near Silves

Architecture

© Portugalist – Villas in Quinta do Lago, Algarve

There are occasional similarities between California and the Algarve but, by and large, the architecture is very different. One area where there can be similarities is with the modern villas that are built in both regions, although the ones in the Algarve cost a fraction of the price those in California do. 

It’s hard to compare the architecture of the Algarve to anywhere else, but it’s perhaps closer to Mexico, and in some cases the pueblo architecture of New Mexico, than it is to California. 

Opportunities

California has considerably more career opportunities than the Algarve or Portugal in general, whether that’s a film career in Hollywood or a job in a startup in Silicon Valley. 

The Algarve doesn’t have the same opportunities. In fact, with the exception of jobs in tourism, the region lacks career opportunities in many areas. Even Lisbon, which is often marketed as the Silicon Valley of Europe, thanks to its wooden trams and Golden Gate-esque bridge has relatively few career opportunities in comparison, particularly as wages are so much lower in Portugal. 

Of course, California is somewhere people move for work. When it comes to foreigners moving to the Algarve, most are retired or work remotely. Few come here looking for work, unless it’s in a job in tourism. From the point of view of retirement, the Algarve is a little more like Florida than it is California. 

Landscape

California’s vast and diverse terrain ranges from the Pacific coastline with its rugged cliffs and sandy beaches to towering mountain ranges like the Sierra Nevada and the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest. Desert regions such as the Mojave and Death Valley showcase arid landscapes with unique features like sand dunes and Joshua trees. 

In contrast, the Algarve, nestled in the southern half of Portugal, boasts a more concentrated coastal landscape, characterized by picturesque beaches, dramatic cliffs, and a drier inland region that has some mountains around Monchique, but overall isn’t as varied. 

Of course, the land size of the Algarve is considerably smaller than that of California. California covers an area of approximately 164,000 square miles (424,000 square kilometers). In contrast, Portugal is a European country with a land area of around 35,600 square miles (92,000 square kilometers). Therefore, California is approximately four to five times larger in land mass compared to Portugal.

If you were to compare all of Portugal to California, you would be able to include other regions like the Douro Valley, 

Lifestyle

Californias are known for being fairly relaxed when compared to people from other parts of the US, however the lifestyle is still American. Despite the more relaxed demeanours, people spend a lot of time working or commuting to work. 

The Algarve, in comparison, is more relaxing. Try visiting during the winter month when half the region shuts down due to the lack of tourism. It’s hard to do anything but relax. Not that people don’t work in the Algarve (those in tourism work long hours, particularly during the summer) but the lifestyle is less focused on work than it is in the US.  

Cities

California is home to several big cities, such as San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The Algarve doesn’t have this. Faro, the capital of the region, has a population of just 50,000-60,000 people and Portimão is roughly the same. The entire population of the Algarve region is less than 450,000, as of 2023, about the same as Oakland or Long Beach. 

fisherman's houses in faro

Even Lisbon and Porto aren’t particularly large cities by US standards. LA’s population is just shy of 4 million as of 2023 whereas Lisbon’s is just above half a million and Porto is less than half that again. 

Traffic 

One area where the Algarve (and Portugal in general) is considerably better than California is traffic. Although there are sometimes roadworks, and you can often get stuck behind a tractor on the N125, you will not find the same bumper-to-bumper traffic in the Algarve. Even Lisbon is much easier to drive in with regards to traffic, even if parking in the narrow streets is much harder. 

Natural Disasters

Portugal, including the Algarve region, is relatively stable in terms of seismic activity, with fewer earthquakes compared to California. However, Portugal does experience occasional forest fires, and in recent years, several devastating wildfires have occurred, notably in 2017 and 2018. These fires have resulted in significant environmental damage and loss of life. 

In contrast, California is known for its susceptibility to both wildfires and earthquakes. The state has witnessed numerous wildfire outbreaks in recent years, with the 2020 California wildfires being particularly destructive. Additionally, California is located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, making it prone to earthquakes, some of which have caused considerable damage, like the 1994 Northridge earthquake. 

While both regions are susceptible to natural disasters, California’s risks include both wildfires and earthquakes, while Portugal’s primary concern is wildfires, making disaster preparedness and mitigation important for residents in both areas.

Conclusion 

The Algarve is often marketed as the California of Europe, but the similarities are often limited to the weather and some parts of the landscape, particularly the beaches. Those coming from California (or anywhere in the US) will find somewhere that’s completely different to what they’re used to, somewhere with its own selling points and reasons to move here. 

Written by

James Cave is the founder of Portugalist and the author of the bestselling book, Moving to Portugal Made Simple. He has visited just about every part of Portugal, including Madeira and all nine islands of the Azores, and lived in several parts of Portugal including Lisbon, the Algarve, and Northern Portugal.